Captain Beefheart (1941-2010): An Appreciation


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By Mark Saleski

Captain Beefheart died yesterday at the age of 69. The reclusive musician and visual artist has been missed by his fans for many years, and now we feel that absence even more.

For many year, Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) was a part of my life even though I was completely unaware of it. When I was a kid living in Maine, one of my favorite radio stations was WBLM, The Blimp. One of their promo spots featured a guy yelling “It's the blimp Frank, it's the blimp!" For years this went on and for years I had no idea that “Frank" was probably Frank Zappa and that the audio was from the song “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)" from Captain Beefheart's iconic Trout Mask Replica.

The man was definitely an enigma. Some called him a mad genius. I'm not sure about the mad part. I heard a long series of interviews with him once and it struck me that he was the kind of person with perhaps too many ideas stuffed into that head. The ideas first came out in his early music, a kind of warped garage rock/psychedelia/blues collision. There's footage out there of Beefheart and his band playing “Electricity" on the beach at Cannes in 1968. The music is at once tough and off-kilter. It's also nothing like the watered-down blues that had found its way into the rock music of the times.

So yes, many years beyond my days in Maine, I found myself finally giving Trout Mask Replica a listen. Woah. Definitely an ear-opener. A lot of ink has been spilled on this particular album, mostly because it's really, really difficult to pin down it's sound. There are bits of rock, blues, jazz, field holler, and then...then there's the other stuff that's even harder to get to. The late Lester Bangs called it ..."four sides of discordant yet juicy swampbrine jambalya roogalator..." If you're not paying attention, you might think it's a big sloppy mess. It's not. Despite the crazed energy flung off in every direction, the playing is tight. Very tight. The captain had a vision and Trout Mask is its distillation. I get to “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)" and have a huge “OhMyGawdThat'sWBLM!" moment.

It's funny how a particular recording can be connected to a thread that runs through a big part of your own history. My introduction to Beefheart probably didn't come until my late 30's and yet there's this long line—it stretches from the late 80's (first encounter with Trout Mask), back to the late 1970's (WBLM), to the 90's (when I had this quote from “Pachuco Cadaver" on my office wall: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n bulbous, got me?"), all the way back through present day (Trout Mask Replica is easily one of my top 10 albums) and then, strangely, back to memories of my dad's last years. I don't even remember when I bought that WBLM coffee mug, but it became dad's favorite for his one cup of decaf in the morning. During the last summer he was here, he would hold it in his right hand, using his left to raise the opposite arm at the elbow. No amount of reasoning could get him to just drink with his left hand. Stubborn guy.

And it's a stubborn memory. So much so that I can't bring myself to use that mug anymore, so there it sits, the end of the thread.

Was Don Van Vliet a stubborn man as well? I don't know, but he sure remained faithful to that vision, whether it be the music of the Magic Band or the painting world he disappeared into. Thanks, man.

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This story appears courtesy of Something Else!.
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